Richard Wagner’s concept of “total art work” synthesizing music, theater, art, poetry and dance obviously did not include video, a technological limitation addressed by Bill Viola in the semi-staged version of “Tristan and Isolde.” Musical elements were exceptional, sometimes sublime, with the building’s acoustics allowing the L.A. Philharmonic to extend the sonic extremes of Wagner’s masterpiece beyond the norm. There was little doubt that the climactic “Liebestod” would be heard in all its emotionally orgasmic dimensions in the hall. But there were other moments that were played, especially by the cellos and kettle drum, at a volume both nearly imperceptible and completely clear.
The music prevails, as it should, but much as the L.A. Opera’s 1980s “Tristan” (returning next year) was defined by David Hockney’s sets, this one will be remembered, for good or not, for Viola’s contributions. A large wide screen was mounted (horizontally for the first two acts, vertically for act three) in front of the organ and some of the seats behind the orchestra.
Five hours is a lot of time to fill for any visual artist, and Viola does so variably. Appropriately for an opera set largely shipboard and, more important, in which the roiling seas and rising and ebbing tides of the music directly express the work’s emotional content, much of the imagery is doused in liquid, from actual tumultuous seas to large bowls from which the leads imbibe.
Shot in high-def and generally at a speed that equals the prolonged nature of Wagner’s dramaturgy, some of the imagery is starkly literal, notably in twin panels in which the attractive actor-models standing in for the title characters perform the slowest joint striptease in cinematic history. Some of it is hopelessly banal, such as the overexposed footage of a forest that recalls nothing so much as outtakes from “The Blair Witch Project.”
But as the work progresses, the imagery becomes increasingly abstract, evoking the granulated ambiguity of an ultrasound for a time and, elsewhere, the mystery of the famous approaching camel shot in “Lawrence of Arabia” extended tenfold. However erratic one may find portions of the onscreen accompaniment, it all pays off in the watery transfiguration expressed onscreen during the “Liebestod,” an unforgettable visual coup that provides the image that will stick in the memory when most of the others have washed away.
Patrons, many of whom were far younger and trendier than the blue-haired crowd normally seen at the L.A. Opera, arrived Tuesday night to learn that they were to hear a replacement Tristan.
German tenor Christian Franz, a Wagner specialist, replaced Alan Woodrow as Tristan, and he allayed all concerns with a voice that leapt right out over the orchestra.
Franz is shorter and rather more compact than his leading lady, Christine Brewer, but he came impressively close to matching her vocal dynamics. Still, Isolde is the more demanding role, and Brewer was staggering from her nearly act one-long rant about Tristan’s treachery to her final flowering hours later.
Bass-baritones John Relyea, as King Mark, and Jukka Rasilainen, as Tristan’s friend Kurwenal, boomed mightily, while Anne Sofie von Otter, a Wagner debutante despite her long career, acquitted herself honorably if without the heft of her colleagues. But she might have suffered at times from her placement around the hall; “artistic collaborator” Peter Sellars generally positioned the principals on either side of Salonen’s podium, allowing them to sit or recline for periods, while secondary characters often popped up at side doors, along balcony railings or on steps. Lightly but effectively used chorus was seated in the high balcony.
Rapturously played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the production now moves to New York City for performances at Avery Fisher Hall on May 2 and 5.